Choreographer Jonah Bokaer in rehearsal for&nbsp;<i>Rules of the Game</i>

Q&A: Jonah Bokaer

A chat with the choreographer who, along with artist Daniel Arsham, musician Pharrell Williams and arranger David Campbell, created Rules of the Game, premiering at the second Soluna: International Music & Arts Festival.

published Friday, May 13, 2016

Photo: Michael Beauplet
Jonah Bokaer



Dallas — Collaboration is having a moment right now in the performing arts world. Sure, we’re taught that most mediums within the genre are collaborative in nature—from emerging partnerships between the technical and performative side, like live music in a show, to the power that combining dance, theater, and visual arts can have. What we rarely see is a successful collaboration in a large-scale venue. Smaller local companies in Dallas have made it their missions to promote collaboration and provide platforms for these productions. Starting last year, we witnessed the beginning of a new Dallas institution, the Soluna: International Music & Arts Festival.

Opening Soluna’s second year is Rules of the Game, a collaboration between producer/songwriter Pharrell Williams, artist Daniel Arsham, and choreographer Jonah Bokaer. This work marks Williams’ first composition for live dance and theater, and each artists’ first time to work with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Rules of the Game will premiere on May 17 at the Winspear Opera House, with a cast of six dancers from all over the world, and two with Texas ties: Dallas’ Bruce Wood Dance Project Artistic Associate Albert Drake and Houston’s Laura Gutierrez.

“This is a brand-new medium where movement is not only an addition, it’s essential to communicating the point,” Williams told Rolling Stone in March. “There are things that are moving…it’s like a whole entire medium moves—the sound moves; the body moves. I feel lucky to be working with such explosive, combustible ideas.”

Photo: Joshua Shultz
David Campbell
Photo: Courtesy
Pharrell Williams
Photo: James Law
Daniel Arsham

However, this isn’t the first collaborative project for the artists. Williams and Arsham starting working together in 2013, when Arsham created molds of the Casio MT-50 keyboard that Williams first began playing music on. He then covered the musician in plaster to create a full-body cast of Williams, which was displayed in the Galerie Perrotin in Paris in 2014. Arsham is once again using this idea of casting bodies in Rules of the Game, another project in a long line of works he has done with Bokaer. The pair have been working together for nearly 10 years, and this work marks their 10th project together (two of their other works, Why Patterns and RECESS, will also be performed on May 17). Yet, with this multidisciplinary performance, the trio is finding a new rhythm, and ultimately, a fourth contributor, conductor David Campbell, who has worked on more than 450 gold and platinum albums, with artists including Adele, Jon Bon Jovi, Michael Jackson and his son, Beck. Campbell arranged Williams’ score for the orchestra.

Williams has created a markedly operatic score that will challenge the DSO, but it is a welcomed new vibe for the musicians to get inside of. And was equally a challenge for Bokaer and the dancers to translate from MIDI files to full-bodied movements. But just as the title indicates, this was all part of the game for Bokaer.

Bokaer is considered one of the mystery men of American dance. In 2000, he joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as a teenager—the youngest performer in its history—and immediately rose in the ranks of the professional world. He embodies this delicate subdued nature that resonates in his public and stage persona. Intense, yet aloof. Alert, yet discreet. Always graceful in his approach. From a young age, he commanded attention and his technique was noted for its control and flexibility. Now, as his career continues to grow, the influence of Cunningham’s technique is apparent in his choreographic method and personal practice in including multi-media aspects. With Rules of the Game, Bokaer is pushing himself into a new creative sphere exploring the intricacies of music, movement, and art, just like Cunningham before him. During an invited rehearsal in the week leading up to the premiere, we were granted a front row view of his process. The work was full of soft, subtle movements of exploration and discovery. Sensual movements quickly became playful and serious. Complicated partnering dissolved into individual phrases that evoked a storytelling element. Underlining it all was a game whose rules were constantly evolving.

We spoke with Bokaer following the rehearsal in the Horchow Hall at the Meyerson Symphony Center. (Continues after this image from Arsham's video.)


Photo: Daniel Arsham Studio


TheaterJones: Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 absurdist play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, was one of your foundational sources of inspiration for this new work. What made you choose this classic piece?

Jonah Bokaer: In 2013, Daniel [Arsham] and I created a work called Occupant and the work was wonderfully received, but it also received some comparisons to Pirandello who was one of the first artists to create the sense of a play within a play. That structure, if I could call it a show within a show, I could be very pleased…that structure resonates for us on many levels. There’s certainly a square within the stage, the performers within a symphony context, and the title, Rules of the Game…actually to prepare for this work, I read 47 of Pirandello’s plays [including his play Rules of the Game]. I liked the dramatic kinds of reversal that happened with that work. I would call it more of a point of departure than a literal usage.  


Which is really fascinating because you don’t see a lot of choreographers taking that approach, or even theatermakers finding new ways of deconstructing and rebuilding an already set script, and especially using just movement. So would you then classify this as more of a dance-theatre work, or performance art? If you had to classify it as anything.

I think Soluna is entirely about music and visual art, but I have the opportunity to direct and to choreograph this work into…let’s call it a united whole.


How did go about selecting the dancers for this work?

All of them are quite loyal, devoted interpreters of my work, some for as many as 10 years. But in realizing that this would be a work made in Dallas, I had wanted to include someone local, because there were so many repeated, in-depth visits here. For that reason, I embarked on a process of casting and located Albert [Drake].


You mentioned that this process was really a collaborative effort between yourself, the dancers, Daniel Arsham, and Pharrell, but I wonder, how much did improvisational exercises come into play when choreographically designed the piece, since the music was composed prior to you entering into the studio in a real manner?

We’re really in the rehearsal process, working from scores…I actually call it “solo portraits,” that’s how we tend to work with performances that are as strong and as nuanced as they are. I use those scores, the solo portraits, to enhance their range. But as soon as the symphony was arranged by David Campbell, I realized that the focus had to shift to being about the music.


Which is becoming very clear, even in those short moments that we saw. 

Thank you. Which is the beauty and the challenge…going with and going from music.


» Click the slideshow image in the floating menu at bottom left of your screen to see more rehearsal images.

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Q&A: Jonah Bokaer
A chat with the choreographer who, along with artist Daniel Arsham, musician Pharrell Williams and arranger David Campbell, created Rules of the Game, premiering at the second Soluna: International Music & Arts Festival.
by Danielle Georgiou

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